Marcellus Shale operators in Pennsylvania are familiar with the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), the interstate regulatory agencies that manage water resources in eastern and central Pennsylvania, but currently don't have to deal with a similar organization in the western half of the state. However, that may soon change.

"That really doesn't exist," Alan Vicory, executive director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), told a Pittsburgh-area audience on Wednesday at the Shale Gas Water Management Marcellus Initiative. "That's one of the reasons we're moving in that area."

ORSANCO is older than the SRBC and the DRBC and oversees a much larger area, but it's a smaller organization, with fewer staff, a slimmer budget and less regulatory authority than its counterparts to the east.

Established in 1948, ORSANCO is an interstate compact between eight states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, in the Marcellus Shale, as well as Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Kentucky. ORSANCO is a water quality organization, focused on interstate pollution issues, but some of its members have asked it to look into water quantity as well.

Vicory said several issues prompted the request: droughts east of the Mississippi River, concerns about climate change, water use for energy production and the expectation that the dry west wants water from the wet east. "All of these things are combining for us to recognize in the Ohio Valley that we better get our act together and do something," Vicory said.

ORSANCO took its first step toward that goal in 2009 by partnering with the Ohio River Basin Water Resources Association, a non profit information agency. ORSANCO is currently in the process of co-opting that smaller group.

In June 2010, ORSANCO created a water resources Committee. The committee met for the first time in February and will meet again at the next ORSANCO meeting this coming June in Pittsburgh. "That's going to be the committee that will guide our thinking and our activity as we go down this road of water resources management," Vicory said.

It won't be easy, Vicory said, because ORSANCO may have to seek regulatory authority that it doesn't currently have.

"For us to amend our compact is going to be a really heavy lift, quite frankly, because we have to get that through eight state legislatures and the United States Congress," Vicory said, noting that "what Pennsylvanians may want us to do in terms of water resources and what Illinois may want us to do in terms of water resources will probably be two different viewpoints."

Until ORSANCO proposes amendments, it's uncertain how the agency could impact shale development, but the SRBC and DRBC have become crucial regulatory agencies and lightening rods for controversy. The SRBC is an early stop for drillers and DRBC essentially enacted a moratorium while it crafts new regulations (see Shale Daily, March 4, Dec. 10, 2010).

Vicory described ORSANCO's involvement in the Marcellus Shale to date as "soft stuff."

"We go to the states and say, 'You let us know if you need our help.' And they have not felt that they needed our help," he said.

However, Vicory anticipated that ORSANCO would add total dissolved solids criteria to its water quality regulations.

"That's probably not going to drive Marcellus Shale much, but it does have an ancillary impact on the water quality in the Monongahela River and the Allegheny River," he said, referring to the two major waterways that feed the Ohio River.

But, he said, because the recent increase in drilling activity is leading to an increasing concern and uncertainty about water quality and use in the basin, "ORSANCO and this industry need to start opening up lines of communication."

If ORSANCO begins regulating water resources, it would impact more than just the Marcellus Shale industry, though.

Along its nearly 1,000-mile route from Pittsburgh to Illinois, the Ohio provides drinking water for five million people, supports significant power generation and handles as much commerce as the Panama Canal, according to Vicory. The Ohio River Basin covers more than 200,000 square miles over parts of 14 states and is home to more than 25 million people, he said.

"It's a blue collar river that's intensively used and incredibly important to the nation's economy," he said.